Somehow Chelsea contrived to finish Sunday's match without Fernando Torres, Juan Mata, Eden Hazard or Oscar on the pitch. Although there were extenuating circumstances involving several crucial calls by the officials, this looked like a failure of managerial judgment. Roman Abramovich, sitting high in his East Stand eyrie, would certainly have been wondering what had happened to the £130m he invested in the quartet.
Torres had been sent off for a second yellow card. He could have gone for the first, a high lunge on Tom Cleverley, although the second, for a dive as he ran at four defenders, seemed marginal as there appeared to be involuntary contact with Jonny Evans's leg.
But the other three were withdrawn, one by one, between the 66th and 82nd minutes as Roberto Di Matteo strove to claw back something from a contest in which his side had already made an impressive comeback. Each decision was understandable when viewed in isolation but together they robbed the league leaders of the chance to manufacture a more constructive response to a heavy dose of misfortune.
If the initial comeback had been impressive, the same could not be said about the way they conceded two goals to Manchester United inside the opening 12 minutes. Sir Alex Ferguson had picked Antonio Valencia to play as a conventional winger on the right and Chelsea's surprisingly flimsy cover was immediately stretched to breaking point.
Both goals came from incursions down that flank, although it was Wayne Rooney whose cross from the right provoked David Luiz's own-goal before Robin van Persie hammered in Valencia's precise cut-back. At that point, and for some time afterwards, Chelsea were all over the place.
Their central defence, in the persons of David Luiz and Gary Cahill, had the consistency of wet tissue paper, while Ashley Cole was receiving no help in defending his area of the pitch against Valencia and Rafael da Silva, with little cover forthcoming from Mikel John Obi and Ramires. Gradually, however, their front four players – Torres and the attacking midfield trio – brought them back into the match, with the assistance of a United team strangely willing to give the ball away in their own half.
For half an hour, either side of half-time, Abramovich had the pleasure of watching his team play the way he expects, full of artistry and inventiveness, looking fully worthy of their position at the top of the table as David de Gea held them at bay, making a number of saves with his lower limbs. Torres worked hard and took advantage of United's generosity to put over several probing crosses from the right, Mata and Hazard probed ominously and Oscar had a touch of the divine about his work. The Brazilian, who turned 21 last month, drifts and ghosts about the pitch with a finely tuned sensitivity to the shifting patterns of play. Put the genes of his compatriots Kaká and Juninho Paulista into a test tube and you would come out with something resembling the slender, elusive No 10.
One gloriously sinuous run eight minutes from the interval made three opponents look as though they were trying to tackle smoke. For the equaliser he accepted David Luiz's pass in the inside-left position and floated a ball over to the far post, where Mata's superb control allowed the Spaniard to bring the ball down and clip it to the far post, where Oscar was waiting to regain possession before measuring a cross that Ramires met with a strong header past De Gea.
There will be much more to come from that quarter but aesthetic considerations took a back seat on Sunday to the fact of a victory that brought United level with Manchester City and to within a point of Chelsea. If Ferguson's side were fortunate with several pivotal decisions, then they could be said to have made their own luck through the positive manner in which they approached the challenge of securing their first win in domestic competition at the Bridge in 10 years.
Until he committed the foul on Hazard that enabled Mata to strike the equaliser with a sumptuous free-kick, Rooney had enjoyed an outstanding game. Playing behind Van Persie in a 4-4-1-1 formation, he did everything he does in the Premier League and fails to accomplish in an international shirt. He looked fit, fast and mentally alert, with an adhesive first touch and a near-perfect control of his passing. When he foraged back to win the ball around the edge of the United area, his interventions were made with first-class timing.
He was fortunate, however, that when he made his big error, it did not turn out to cost United the match. Robbed by Hazard 30 yards from his own goal, he turned and chased and made a tackle from behind with the kind of rashness associated with his less admirable displays. He received a yellow card and might have had another when he threw out an arm to obstruct Cole in the 71st minute. Shortly thereafter he was withdrawn by Ferguson, presumably out of prudence.
At the end of such an intense and percussive contest there could be only a sense of relief that the steward who lay surrounded by paramedics in the tumultuous aftermath of United's winner – scored by Javier Hernández, who had come back from an offside position – had, according to Chelsea, merely slipped and twisted his knee.